More than 45,000 people, including President Bush, converged on the Mall yesterday to get an early glimpse of the Desert Storm celebration that officially begins this morning.

After a memorial service for the 378 Americans who died in the Persian Gulf War, a victory parade including 8,000 Desert Storm veterans steps off at 11:30 a.m. The largest display of military equipment ever assembled in Washington formally opens to the public on the Mall. A fireworks display -- three times the size of any held here before -- closes the $12 million celebration at nightfall.

"This is the best thing to ever happen to this town," said Jeffrey S. Jones, a Montgomery County businessman. "There are so many parties for politicians here, so many parades for presidents." Now, he said, there is a celebration for "real people, people who risked their lives."

No live network television coverage of the day's festivities is planned. WRC-TV (Channel 4) said it plans to broadcast the parade from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. The C-SPAN and CNN cable channels are scheduled to carry a large part of the celebration live, from the morning memorial service to the night fireworks display. WMZQ radio (98.7 FM) will simulcast the music accompanying the fireworks.

As the day of the parade approached, the Mall, from the U.S. Capitol to the Washington Monument, was transformed from an empty grassy expanse to one giant parking lot filled with camouflaged military vehicles.

The festive mood continued to encompass the Mall last night, with hundreds of people visiting the soldiers who stood by to describe the military hardware. Dozens of tourists and military personnel in town for the parade exchanged greetings along Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues.

"Everything's quiet and under control . . . the people are just looking at the vehicles," said Marine Capt. Dennis Striker, who was stationed at the parade command post on 14th Street and Madison Drive. "I've seen a lot of smiles on everyone's faces."

Almost nothing was off-limits as kids, young and old, climbed inside tanks and armored vehicles used in the Persian Gulf. On display were helicopters, humvees -- indeed, almost every type of military equipment that played a part in the war, from portable airport runway lights used in Kuwait to radar equipment used to track Iraqi planes.

"Yes, we can take out a single tank or a whole brigade," said Army Spec. Mark Thompson, answering questions beside his M-270 multiple launch rocket system. "This one right here," he said, patting the launcher, "sent more than 50 rockets into Iraqi territory."

Bush surprised the gathering midmorning crowd when he alighted from his limousine, walked into the middle of the Mall and declared, "This is good for America."

The president, the official host of the Desert Storm celebration, was heard cheerily saying "Hi," "Hello" and "How are you?" to people in the startled crowd who began snapping his picture and lifting up children to get a glimpse.

In the 10-minute visit, Bush stopped by an armored personnel carrier, talked to one of the soldiers perched atop it and kicked its treads.

For others, there was work to be done. Along the parade route, Robert Howes was checking last-minute details.

"I'm tightening the rails and checking the nails," said Howes, of Shady Side, who helped build the 32,000 bleacher seats along the 2.5-mile parade route.

As contractors gave the bleacher seats a last-minute coat of dark green paint, organizers fretted about what the parade pictures would look like in the history books and ordered more flags and yellow ribbons. Soldiers spent the day marching up and down on local college campuses, practicing for the parade.

"I think we have got a hit on our hands," said parade organizer Dan Denning, as he stood on the reviewing stand figuring out where the Supreme Court and presidential guests would sit. Judging from the thousands of people who showed up at dawn to get bleacher seats -- only 3,000 were available, and they were gone in 20 minutes -- Denning predicted an enormous crowd today.

The turnout should be enhanced by good weather. The forecast calls for a clear sky and highs in the low eighties.

To accommodate a flyover of warplanes, which will zoom low above the Constitution Avenue parade route in the restricted air space of the Mall, National Airport will close for 20 to 30 minutes.

The flyover is scheduled to begin about 12:20 p.m. and last for 10 to 15 minutes.

By nightfall yesterday, 800 portable toilets were in place. The $8 souvenir caps, $12 Desert Storm Victory T-shirts and $10 commemorative booklets were stacked and ready for the throngs.

More than 26,000 gallons of spring water, some of which will be distributed free to onlookers along the parade route, were being chilled in refrigerated trucks on downtown streets. A crane was called in so bunting could be placed on the top of the reviewing stand at 16th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. And a giant yellow ribbon to be suspended over Constitution Avenue by two 100-foot firetruck ladders was being readied.

At the Ellipse behind the White House, where the 8,000 marching troops and their families will be feted at a private picnic, corn chips, candy bars, hot dog buns and paper plates were piling up by the minute.

Armed guards stood by the food and equipment that was left in the Mall area overnight. Today, security around the president is expected to be extraordinarily tight.

Secret Service agents have worked with parade organizers for weeks, plotting Bush's every movement. During the picnic, he is expected to play a game of horseshoes. Before the parade, he is scheduled to walk into the middle of Constitution Avenue and place battle streamers on the flags that will be carried by Desert Storm veterans representing the service branches.

Many of the soldiers marching in the parade will carry M-16 rifles and 9mm handguns, but none of the weapons will be loaded. A fleet of metal detectors has been brought in to check each of the 26,000 people invited to the picnic.

By dawn yesterday, Elaine Sutor and Linda Devlin already had been up for hours eagerly awaiting a chance at a good seat for the parade. The two sisters were among the estimated 5,000 people who waited in line at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium for a noon giveaway of tickets for bleacher seats along the parade route. Although 32,000 seats were constructed, only 3,000 were available to the public; the rest went to corporate sponsors, veterans groups, Congress and other VIPs.

Devlin whittled away some of the seven hours she waited in line by arranging six years of family photographs in albums.

"It's worth the wait because this is the greatest thing in years," said the Rockville resident. "There are a lot of hurting hearts from Vietnam, and this will do a lot to heal some of them."

Only 1,000 of those who stood in line got the tickets they were after; three tickets were given to each person. Even before the box office opened, the line stretched around the stadium 1 1/2 times. Some people used umbrellas to block the sun. One man wearing a green hospital scrub suit slept. A mother and her son played chess.

As the ticket window slammed shut 20 minutes after it opened, many grumbled as they walked away empty-handed. They said they thought this parade was for the people, not for Congress. But it was Michael Sierra's lucky day.

Sierra, a 23-year-old Defense Department analyst who had taken the day off to get a single ticket for the parade, arrived too late.

On his dejected subway ride back to his Fairfax County home, he struck up a conversation with Maj. Charles Campbell, an Army reservist who had gotten two tickets from military friends.

"I can't go," Campbell said, handing Sierra a ticket.

"Unbelievable! Fantastic!" said Sierra, who seemed to be walking on air as he got off at Metro Center.

Even larger crowds than the one at RFK gathered at the Mall, and the military men and women there explaining the equipment said they were overcome by the many handshakes and thank yous.

Marine Staff Sgt. Brian O'Neil, a helicopter mechanic injured during Desert Storm, said he is in town to have his knee operated on at Bethesda Naval Medical Center, but is happy to have the chance to attend the celebration. "This gives the public a chance to see what the military is all about, to see where their taxpayer dollars go," O'Neil said.

Around many of the military exhibits on the mall, thousands were clearly enjoying themselves. Men wearing white shirts and ties looked longingly at youngsters climbing into the M1A1 Abrams tanks, amphibious assault vehicles and armored personnel carriers. Then, after taking a quick look to see who was watching, some climbed in themselves.

"I can't help but laugh at all these men in business suits," said Vicki McCowan, a New Carrollton resident who brought her son, Matthew, down to see the reconnaissance equipment and the helicopters. "They are climbing into the tanks just like the kids."

Staff writers Sandra Evans, Stephen C. Fehr and Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.